In August 1914, Europe and its colonies mobilised for war. While the generals of the Great Powers executed their war plans, businessmen anxiously debated amongst themselves. Despite all the meticulousness that had gone into planning the opening salvos of the Great War, a crucial element, in their mind, had gone over-looked. The War was to be over by Christmas and yet, as manufacturers and merchantmen from Nuremberg to Eaton’s department store checked the growing tally of disrupted shipping, one question dominated their conversations: what about the toys?
Mass-consumer culture had begun taking root in Canadian society at the end of the nineteenth century. Upper- and middle-class children eagerly expected Santa Clause to reward their good behaviour with the latest model of mass-produced dolls, tin soldiers, wind-up cars or rocking horses. Meanwhile, working-class, and poor children could expect lower quality toys or the occasional donation from their wealthier counterparts. Out in the more rural parts of Canada, where department stores could not be maintained, catalogues allowed people to order gadgets that had previously been reserved for city-folk. By 1914, small, mass-produced toys had become synonymous with childhood. The most sought-after toys were manufactured in Germany. They were handmade by individual families in the semi-industrial cottage industry around Nuremberg. German toys had a personal touch that no factory could compete with but could still be produced at an industrial scale. This combination of quantity and folksy veneer conquered the North American market to the point that, at the beginning of the Great War, nearly 60% of all the toys in Canada were made in Germany.
The sudden stop of the flow of toys from Germany to North America in August and September of 1914 caused a mild frenzy. The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star worried over the consequences of the sudden toy shortage while the Washington Post bombastically labelled the situation a ‘Toy Famine’. Poems featuring Santa Claus were written imploring the world to sue for peace so that he could continue his tradition. Capping it all off, a great drama took place in the Atlantic as ocean transports from Hamburg sought to cross to New York, avoiding British patrols the whole way, so they could deliver the last toys readily available from Germany. The successful evasion of the Royal Navy and the arrival of these ships in neutral waters were met with adulation in the New York Times, and the Globe and Mail amongst others.
After the drama and verve of the first months of the toy shortage, Canada actively began seeking a long-term solution. To solve the immediate shortages of the first few years, Canada increasingly relied on the United States for its recreational needs. Long term investment in Canadian toy manufacturing capacity also took place. By the 1920s, Canada had developed its own robust, if small, toy industry and had begun exporting its playthings internationally.
The Great War was a disruptive event in world history. That phrase may ring of understatement and yet the depth of disruption can be difficult to conceptualise. Aspects of life, such as Christmas shopping, that were so innocuous that they often went unacknowledged suddenly became impossible or incredibly difficult to perform. As global trade ground to a halt from 1914-1918, local industry suddenly came under immense stress to make up the slack, all while supplying a massive war effort. While seemingly quaint and melodramatic when compared to the very real tragedies and struggles endured during the First World War, the near ‘toy famine’ of 1914 nonetheless serves as an interesting bellwether of the shocks and disruptions that total war introduced to daily life.
Featured Image: “Toy Shops are Silent” The Washington Post (1877-1922); Aug 30, 1914; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post, pg. 12.
Figure 1: T. Eaton Co., “Choice Christmas Candy Novelties” Eaton’s Fall and Winter Catalogue 1913-14 (Toronto: T. Eaton Co., 1913), http://archive.org/details/eatons19131400eatouoft.
Figure 2: Evelyn Robson Strahledorf, “Eaton Beauty for 1913-14” in Before E-Commerce: A History of Canadian Mail-order Catalogues, Canadian Museum of History, https://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/cpm/catalog/cat2101e.html#1227268.
Figure 3: “Christmas Toy Supplies Here from Hated Germany”inThe Globe (1844-1936); Aug 18, 1914; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Globe and Mail, pg. 7.
Figure 4: “Dodges British Cruisers” in New York Times (1857-1922); Aug 16, 1914; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times, pg. 5.
Figure 5: “Thoughts for Santa Claus” The Globe (1844-1936); Sep. 9, 1914; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Globe and Mail, pg. 5.
Thanks to these Works
Hutchinson, Braden. “Objects of Affection: Producing and Consuming Toys and Childhood in Canada, 1840-1989,” 2013. Hutchinson, Braden P. L.
“Making (Anti)Modern Childhood: Producing and Consuming Toys in Late Victorian Canada.” Scientia Canadensis 36, no. 1 (June 26, 2014): 79–110. https://doi.org/10.7202/1025790ar.
By Cain Doerper